Victor Sawden Pritchett (PRIHCH-iht) was a master of the short story. He was born near London of lower-middle-class parents. Owing to his father’s lack of business sense, the family moved constantly from house to house, from one set of relatives to another. The father, who usually worked as a traveling salesman, dominated his undernourished wife and children, and his conversion to Christian Science caused frequent family quarrels. At school, Pritchett was a mediocre student except in shorthand, French, and German. His hopes of attending a university were shattered when, just before his sixteenth birthday, he was abruptly taken out of school and made an apprentice in the leather trade. His long-smoldering ambition to become a writer led him to abandon his job and move to France in 1921.
In Paris Pritchett lived meagerly and mingled with modest working people. In his leisure he walked indefatigably, read voraciously, and tried to write. Eventually he had some articles accepted by The Christian Science Monitor, which could not pay him because of its financial troubles in Boston. After nearly starving to death, Pritchett returned to England. The newspaper’s London editor promptly sent him to Ireland to write a series of articles on the civil war. Since he knew nothing about politics, he indulged his passions for the countryside, the theater, and Irish poets. As a correspondent, he was later sent to North Africa and the United States.
After being dismissed by The Christian Science Monitor and returning to London in the late 1920’s, Pritchett resolved to walk across Spain. The resulting book, Marching Spain, although not a great success, marked Pritchett’s transition from journalist to freelance writer. He supported himself by writing book reviews and travel sketches, but his real interest was in fiction. Between 1930 and 1940, he published thirty-six short stories. This work represents some of his best writing. He claimed that the improvement was the result of his second marriage. (His earlier marriage to an Irish woman had been the cause of much unhappiness.)
During his three years at American universities (1962, 1966, and 1968), Pritchett had the leisure to compose his two autobiographies, both of which are regarded as classics. By 1970, he was an admired man of letters and had received many awards, culminating in his 1975 knighthood for his contributions to British letters. Although long past the normal age for retirement, Pritchett continued to write.
Of this lifetime of writing it is generally agreed that, apart from the autobiographies, Pritchett’s short stories represent his most enduring claim to fame. In his many volumes of short fiction, written over five decades, certain characteristics remain constant. Generally, the focus is on character rather than on plot. The reader senses that Pritchett sympathizes with the sad, lonely, frustrated people he depicts, no matter how ridiculously they may behave. If they are eccentric, that is proof, according to Pritchett, that they are true to life. The action in each story serves only to explain the characters; it involves the interaction of individuals. Painstaking craftsmanship is evident in each story, and the setting is evoked magically, with great economy. Pritchett does not explain what his characters are feeling. Instead they reveal their emotions in dialogue.
Pritchett’s writing has attracted more admiration than it has critical study, possibly because he offers readers few interpretive hints. Pritchett never entirely divests characters of their dignity; a critic, therefore, finds it difficult to pronounce judgment on them. Furthermore, Pritchett’s work is difficult to categorize because it features an astounding variety of characters. They are drawn from the middle and the working classes, ranging in...
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age from childhood to the elderly. They are male and female, usually but not always British, and they populate at least six different decades. Although the rich literary and cultural material that Pritchett produced has only begun to be mined, his autobiographies, his literary criticism, his travel books, and above all his short stories secured for him a permanent place in English literature.
Victor Sawden Pritchett was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, of middle-class parents. His father, Walter, a Yorkshireman, espoused a strict Congregationalism. He married Beatrice of London, whom he had met when both worked in a draper’s shop. Enthralled by wild business schemes, Walter often left his family for months as he pursued dreams that shattered and left the family destitute, forcing it into innumerable moves and frequent sharing of flats with relatives. Often a traveling salesman, Pritchett’s father, despite his long absences, caused the family unmitigated misery when he returned. Pritchett’s dictatorial father is reflected in many of his stories and novels, and Pritchett is completely frank in his autobiography about his father’s brutality.
Most remarkable, Pritchett received only the barest of formal training at Alleyn’s Grammar School, which he left when he was only sixteen to enter the leather trade. Clever with languages, he soon showed proficiency in French. He read omnivorously. In his stories, he reflects a cerebral ability, perceptiveness, and imagism. Despite his lack of formal training in literature, he is, in the twentieth century, considered to be one of the best writers of the short story in England. In 1975, he was knighted as Sir Victor for his contributions to literature.
After working in the leather trade for several years as a tanner, he left for a two-year interlude in Paris. Those years as a tanner were fruitful, he has declared, for he encountered all classes of people in England, a factor noted in his short stories, depicting the monied aristocrats and the working classes, together with the middle classes that he fixes in amber. In Paris, he worked in a photography shop as clerk and letter writer but soon wearied of the routines and determined to become a writer. His connection with The Christian Science Monitor became the key transitional phase, for he wrote and published for this newspaper a series of articles. When there was no longer a need for these articles written in Paris, The Christian Science Monitor sent him to Ireland, where the civil war raged. Pritchett soaked up experiences from his wide travels as he journeyed from Dublin to Cork, Limerick, and Enniskillen. A year later the newspaper editors informed him that they needed him in Spain, and he left for Iberia with Evelyn Maude Vigors, whom he married at the beginning of 1924. There are virtually no details about his first wife, except that she was an actress. Their marriage, however, turned out not to be a happy one; the couple was divorced in 1936, and during that same year, Pritchett married Dorothy Roberts. His wife continued to assist him in his literary work, and he has invariably dedicated his work to her, one inscription reading “For Dorothy—always.”
The years in Spain were productive, with Pritchett writing novels, short stories, travel books, and journalistic pieces. While there, he learned Spanish easily and immersed himself in its literature, especially being influenced by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, whose philosophic themes often concern the intensity of living near the jaws of death, and by Pío Baroja, whose books often focus on atheism and pessimism. Pritchett especially was influenced by Baroja’s empathy for character. After two years in Spain, Pritchett visited Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, the United States, and Canada, travels that further shaped his contours of place and people. In the 1930’s, his writing approached the luminous. In the second volume of his autobiography, Midnight Oil, Pritchett wrote to this point:If I began to write better it was for two reasons: in my thirties I had found my contemporaries and had fallen happily and deeply in love. There is, I am sure, a direct connection between passionate love and the firing of the creative power of the mind.
Critics agree that Pritchett reached a high level of achievement in the short story in the 1930’s. He continued writing on a high level until all was interrupted, as it was for many other writers, by the onset of World War II, during which he served in the Ministry of Information.
Pritchett became literary editor of New Statesman in 1945, resigning this position in 1949 to become its director from 1951 to 1978. Along the way, he had been given lectureships at Princeton University (1953, Christian Gauss Lecturer) and the University of California, Berkeley (1962, Beckman Professor), and he was appointed as writer-in-residence at Smith College in 1966. Brandeis University, Columbia University, and the University of Cambridge also invited him to teach.
Honors poured on Pritchett. He was elected Fellow by the Royal Society of Literature, receiving a C.B.E. in 1969. Two years later he was elected president of the British PEN and was made Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974, he was installed as international president of PEN for two years. One of his greatest honors came from Queen Elizabeth as she received him into knighthood in 1975 for his services to literature. Also, Pritchett through the years received academic honors from several universities in the Western world, including honorary D.Litt. degrees from Leeds (1972) and Columbia University (1978).
Pritchett continued to contribute to journals both in the United States and Europe and England. Not wishing to rest on his innumerable laurels, this grand master of the short story continued to write and to select stories for his collections. By many, he is thought to be a writer’s writer. He died on March 20, 1997, at the age of ninety-six, in London, England.